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Essentials for Working with Teenagers in Groups

As we transition into a changing system of care, it is essential that we do not lose sight of fundamental practice skills such as tuning-in, engaging and contracting with teens and their families. Nowhere is this more critical than working with teens in groups.

Group work cannot simply be a means of herding teens together to maximize revenue. If our work with teens in groups is to qualify as value based, it must be implemented from a solid foundation. Following are seven principles that provide a strengths-based foundation for working with adolescents in groups.

Principle I: Form Groups Based on Members’ Felt Needs and Wants, Not Diagnoses: Groups must not be formed on the basis of a diagnosis or label. Groups should be formed on the basis of felt needs and wants that the group is being formed to address. Felt needs are different from ascribed labels. Understanding members’ felt needs is where we begin in group work. Such a simple concept, yet so foreign to so many.

Principle 2: Structure Groups to Welcome the Whole Person, Not Just the Troubled Parts: Group workers must learn to structure groups to welcome the whole person and not just the troubled, hurt, or broken parts. There is much talk these days about strengths and wellness. This is hardly a new and revolutionary concept, but it has been neglected for too long. Good group work practice has been paying attention to people’s strengths and assets since the days of the original settlement houses more than 120 years ago, mostly without any fanfare.

Principle 3: Integrate Verbal and Nonverbal Activities: Competent group work requires the use of verbal and nonverbal activities. Group work practitioners must, for once and for all, learn to relax and to abandon the strange and bizarre belief that the only successful group is one that consists of people who sit still and speak politely and insightfully.

Principle 4: Develop Alliances with Relevant People in Group Members’ Lives: Group workers involved with youths must understand that anxious and angry parents, teachers, and school administrators are not our enemies and that we must collaborate with them and form stable alliances with them if we are to be successful with their children. We must learn to embrace their frustration and anxiety rather than become defensive and rejecting. Alliances are needed with relevant others who are deeply invested in the plight of our group members.

Principle 5: Decentralize Authority and Turn Control Over to Group Members: Group workers need to understand that losing control is not what you want to get away from; it’s what you want to get to. What this means is that when control is turned over to the group, and when the group worker gives up his or her centrality in the group, then mutual aid can follow, and members can then find expression for what they have to offer, something valuable to contribute to the group. Encouraging “what they have to offer”—that is the kind of group work we need to practice; that’s what real empowerment is all about.

Principle 6: Maintain a Dual Focus on Individual Change and Social Reform: Group workers must stay tuned in to the near things of individual need and the far things of social reform. Group workers must help group members to become active participants in community affairs, so that they might make a difference, might change the world one day where others have failed. A good group can be a great start for this kind of consciousness development and action.

Principle 7: Understand and Respect Group Development as a Key to Promoting Change: Each good group has a life of its own, each one with a unique personality—what group workers refer to as a culture. All those working with groups must learn to value the developmental life of a group. A greater understanding of and respect for group development, amidst the noise and movement and excitement of a typical kids’ group, can lead to a feeling of greater confidence in the group worker—confidence to move ahead and to hang in there and not bail out, as too many an adult already has.

The strengths-based principles summarized above are overlapping and interrelated. They call for group workers to consider the felt needs of group members, recognize and activate what group members have to offer, use a variety of activities and media to engage and challenge young people in groups, reach out to parents and other relevant people in group members’ lives, recognize opportunities for group members to practice social action and citizenship, and become familiar with the developmental path of groups.

Andrew Malekoff is the Executive Director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which provides comprehensive mental health services for children from birth through 24 and their families. To find out more, visit: www.northshorechildguidance.org. He is the author of Group Work with Adolescents: Principles and Practice (Guilford Press), now in its third edition.

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